an independent spirit

[from "Back from the Edge" by Lisa Robinson, Elle, May 1996]

Punk goddess Patti Smith emerges from her own annus horribilis
with a new book, a new album, and a new peace of mind.

"I've experienced a lot of personal sorrow," says Patti Smith, "and I felt the most desolate I could, but still I feel constant amazement at how beautiful life is. If I'm experiencing reentry, I want to reenter positive."

After a tragic year that saw the deaths of her husband of fourteen years, MC5 founding guitarist Fred Smith, and her younger brother Todd, punk-rock goddess-poet Smith, forty-nine, reentered the world of recording, performing, and publishing.

I first met Smith in the early '70s at the birth of New York City's CBGB punk scene. With her poems, songs, trademark swagger, and proclamations of "beyond gender, outside of society," she galvanized the underground rock scene. She recorded four important albums that to this day—and to her somewhat embarrassed pride—have influenced musicians like Michael Stipe, U2, Courtney Love, and PJ Harvey, and keep cropping up on all those rock critics' "Desert Island Records" lists.

In 1979, having hit the peak of their fame with a Top Twenty hit ("Because the Night") co-written with Bruce Springsteen, Smith left the arena to move to Detroit, marry Fred, and give birth to two children (son Jackson, now thirteen, and daughter Jesse, eight), an experience that she says forced her to be a better person, "less selfish."

During her lengthy, self-imposed exile from show business, Smith never stopped writing; now, to coincide with her first album in eight years, this month Smith publishes a book of new prose poems, The Coral Sea, written, she says, "in a fever" after the 1989 death of her close friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe.

Lisa Robinson:  When you moved to Detroit and decided not to tour or record anymore, how did you feel about your success?

Patti Smith:  You know, in certain parts of the world, I was so successful that things were starting to come very easy to me. Things that people have to struggle really hard for: Art galleries and art museums in Europe wanted to show my work, all kinds of publishers called, people wanted me to do movies, and I really thought a lot of it wasn't necessarily based on merit. Once you get to a certain level of fame, you just get a lot of stuff handed to you. It's like the way people always want to give rich people money. I just didn't feel it was right, and I also felt the quality of my work—both performance and writing—was not as high as it could be.

LR:  What did you feel you had done well?

PS:  I felt that we had a great purpose, and there were some great performances. I didn't know how to judge our records except that we did them the best we could. But as a writer, which I felt was my first priority, I wasn't even close.

LR:  You and Fred lived in a very isolated situation, yet you told me it was a creative one.

PS:  When Robert [Mapplethorpe] and I were young, we lived the same way. We were twenty years old, we lived in Brooklyn, totally isolated. This was in 1967, two years before we came into Manhattan. I worked in the bookstore [Scribner's], I came to the apartment, and we spent most of our time drawing, looking at books, and spending all of our time together, hardly ever seeing other people. And I flourished. Even though we parted ways romantically as a couple, we built a friendship that endured to his death.

LR:  In Detroit, you were busy raising two children. basically a housewife ...

PS:  [Laughs] ...doing tons of laundry, cleaning toilet bowls... You know, if one is perceived to have an independent spirit, what could be more independent? I think what I did required more strength, more independence, and more depth of character than not doing it.

LR:  Americans really don't understand turning away from fame.

PS:  When I was younger, I guess fame seemed real exciting for a little while, to see my picture on a cover of a magazine. But it eventually just seems part of a marketing game or something. Being famous wasn't my prime directive; my prime directive had always been the work.

LR:  When did you write The Coral Sea?

PS:  I wrote that right after Robert died. Robert died March 9; it had been expected through that night. I was watching A & E in the morning—I think "Tosca" was on—when his brother called and told me that Robert had passed away. I had wept so much for Robert during his illness, and I knew how badly he was suffering, that I just really couldn't cry. I knew the thing that Robert would like the best, more than tears, would be a piece of work. So I started writing this piece, and then I just wrote like in a fever for days. It's a set of sixteen prose poems all woven together, and I wrote it as I conceived Robert—as a young man, as an artist, as a man stoically dealing with his illness. And I finished it, then I just put it away. I guess I decided to publish it now because there have been various things written or done in Robert's name, and I wanted to ...

LR:  Counteract it?

PS:  Well, you can gossip or talk about anybody, but what made Robert special wasn't his lifestyle and the relationships he had. To me, what made Robert special was the calling he had, which clearly was to be an artist. He knew exactly who was calling him, he felt God was calling him, and he knew he was an artist. He knew those two things when he was just twenty years old, and to me that was the real truth of Robert. Also the fact that he was really funny and loved to laugh.

LR:  Do you usually write in this kind of feverish way?

PS:  No, but this had a life of its own; I felt so tremendously energized. I've seen the passing of so many people close to me in the past five years, and I'm amazed, actually, at how unique each passing is; each has its own particular profoundness. When Robert passed away, I was completely energized. I just worked constantly, which was in tune with out relationship. I did nothing else for weeks.

LR:  You're involved in every aspect of your children's lives. Did you have to wait until they went to sleep to be able to write?

PS:  I'd wake up at five in the morning and write before they got up. I found I had to relearn all my processes because of my family. I'd always liked a really communal atmosphere, I always liked to work around other people who were working. It never bothered me to be in a room with three or four people working at once; I like that energy, I like a collaborative feel even if we weren't working on the same project. Robert and I used to sit and draw for hours and hours and never speak, but the fact that we were both working kept up entwined, and I deeply missed that. I didn't derive much joy from sitting drawing myself. But Fred was a very isolated type of worker, he didn't really crave the attention or energy of others. So I had to learn to work like that, and I became a lot more disciplined. I spent the whole '80s learning how to write by myself, from a quarter of a page a day to pages and pages a day...

LR:  Did you show your writing to Fred or keep it private?

PS:  Oh, we talked about everything. We talked about the things I wrote, didn't write, was going to write, and the same with him. He used to imagine whole movie scripts. One of our favorite things to do was to sit and verbally write movies. Fred's philosophy was that you create art in the world, but we could also create art just for ourselves. I suppose that's somewhat selfish, but I can assure you it was beautiful.

LR:  This past year you recorded an album, you toured with Bob Dylan, and you're doing concerts again. What are your future plans?

PS:  Nothing specific except to be happy and to do good work and for my kids to be happy. I want to record more in the future, I want to continue working on my books, I'm going to work on the manuscripts I did in the '80s. There's a lot of work I want to do, but I don't have any particular design. I just want to do good work. But I'm pleased with all the things so far.

Copyright © Lisa Robinson 1996

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